That's what I think to myself as I drink in this gorgeous view: a winding river backed by low mountains, trees showing their limbs while others sport various shades of brown, all of it lit by a weak sun, and not a coconut palm in sight. I could be taking in a summer day in northern California (where, by the way, summer occurs when much of the rest of the US is sliding towards winter).
That was our favorite time of the year when we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it's a sweet bit of fortune to find it here in on a February day in northern Thailand. Yesterday we drove from Lampang to Mae Chaem, a scruffy village on a diversionary road off the Mae Hong Son Loop. It's a relatively short journey - just 2 1/2 hours - but the last leg cuts through Doi Inthanon National Park, home to Thailand's highest peak, and for the final ninety minutes or so the road is all twisty turns.
We drove with our windows open (something we never do at home in Kuala Lumpur) and, at the road's highest point, gulped in wonderfully crisp air as the sun began to fall behind the mountain. As the elevation dropped the air heated and the scents of dry brush, dead leaves, and deliberately-set fires filled the car. When we arrived in Mae Chaem, which is nestled in a parched (at this time of the year) valley, the temperature was on that delicious cusp between daylight sauna heat and moist, nighttime coolness. After finding a room for the night we walked to the wet market (what little of it was still up and running at half past seven) and celebrated our arrival, seated roadside at a rickety table, with Sang Som and soda poured by a boiled peanut vendor.
There's not much to Mae Chaem and we'd rather be at higher elevations anyway, so this is just a pitstop - but we want to make the most of it so we're up early, to take in what little there is to take in before the valley heats up. At seven the market is surprisingly quiet, just a few vegetable and kanom vendors and others selling pork, beef, and chicken in a glassed-in 'meat room'. There's no real coffee either, so we down our Nescafe with our noses scrunched as if it were medicine (and in a way, it is) and then walk for a bit along the river before turning into village's 'suburbs', a neat grid of residential streets.
Sleepy doesn't begin to describe the dozey feel of this place, but the residents are friendly and the roads are lined with some lovely old wooden houses.
When we return to the market an hour later it's bordering on kind-of lively, with more vendors of prepared foods and a woman at the back cooking up laab khua to order.
She flavors her laab not with spice paste but with ground chili, a powdered spice mixture heavy on the prickly ash, and fish sauce; her laab is chunkier - the meat and 'parts' cut into larger pieces - than most, and it's studded with plenty of generously sized pieces of crackling.
We pad our breakfast with a spicy chicken, vegetable, and mung bean vermicelli gaeng purchased from a nearby vendor, and grilled, banana leaf-wrapped fish sourced from another.
The former is wonderful but the latter I can't abide. The tiny fish are too bony and the paste they've been mixed with before grilling contains an ingredient that puts me off somehow. This is frustrating and very unusual - I can't recall the last time I tried something that I couldn't bring myself to continue eating. But Dave is happy to finish it off by himself.
At the far end of our table a woman chops pork fat into big chunks and tosses them into a huge wok. As we eat we admire the patience of one Mae Cham resident for whom hope springs eternal.